Part of the Series
The Road to Abolition
“There are so many ways the system robs people of life, and police are out there daily, enacting that theft.” Truthout’s Kelly Hayes talks about the Chauvin verdict and the murder of Adam Toledo, and discusses the history and current state of policing with Alex Vitale, author of the book, The End of Policing.
Music by Son Monarcas
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know, if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes.
Last week saw the release of police body cam footage of the murder of 13-year-old Adam Toledo who was gunned down by a police officer in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood last month. Protests over the killing of Daunte Wright, amid the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, already had city governments bracing for what could be another summer of rebellion and revolt. On Thursday, as we tensely awaited the release of the body cam footage of Adam’s death, I was recording a conversation with Alex Vitale, whose book The End of Policing became so popular during last summer’s protests that physical copies of the book became almost impossible to find — and we’ll get to that interview in just a moment.
On Tuesday, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. In his closing statement, prosecutor Steve Schleicher stated, “This wasn’t policing. This was murder.” Those two sentences encapsulate the state’s larger objective in this trial: to re-legitimize itself by exceptionalizing Derek Chauvin. Because what happened to George Floyd was sadly, not exceptional. It was policing. Police kill approximately three people per day in the United States. One third of all people killed by strangers in the U.S. are killed by police, and many, many more are killed by the system in ways that are less direct, but equally final. Millions more are degraded, brutalized, and robbed of their well being and dignity.
The murder of George Floyd was heinous, and it should be unthinkable, but it was not an extraordinary occurrence. The uprisings that followed were extraordinary, however, and the state wants them to stay that way. So, with the Chauvin trial, we are witnessing an attempted divorce, between a death-making system and one of its enforcers. The system hopes that divorce will grant the public a sense of satisfaction, one that many people understandably desire, and lift our hopes that the system can work. But in most cases, the system intends to remain the same, and it’s betting that it can.
After all, large masses of people rarely rise up to support Black and brown people who call out police violence. Last summer was a political powder keg. Liberal-minded people were fired up with rage and eager to take on authority, as Donald Trump oversaw a moment of collapse that left many people feeling trapped in their homes, or even left for dead. Now, we are living in a very different moment, when many are hungry for the status quo, and leery of rebellion. Many, it seems, would be happy to accept some token evidence that the system can be redeemed, and move on with their lives. Usually, no such evidence is even requested.
I have watched in recent days as people have tried to justify the killing of Adam Toledo, who was gunned down by a Chicago police officer after halting, and raising his hands, as instructed. They say Adam was armed and running from a cop at 2 a.m., as though police are supposed to kill people for being armed, running away, or being out at 2 a.m. I have heard people say that the officer who killed Adam had only a split second to decide what to do, as though the officer’s feelings and impressions, in that moment, should be our guide. In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that “the ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” That ruling fashioned the general practices and beliefs of an inherently violent and racist institution into a standard of supposed “reasonableness,” that has since been used to protect and exonerate its membership. Adam Toledo’s feelings, his obviously justified fears, are treated as a non-factor in the public discourse around his death. The reason for this is that the police officer is viewed as acting in a fully legitimate context while Adam is viewed as acting in a completely illegitimate context. Eric Stillman, the officer who murdered Adam, is seen as an agent of safety, playing by the rules, while Adam is viewed as an agent of chaos, sowing danger and disorder in our communities. Both of these contexts are wholly imaginary.
The Chicago Police Department has a well documented history of torture, excessive force, systemic racism, and murder, as documented by local activists and the Department of Justice. Eric Stillman has had three complaints filed against him since 2017 and four use-of-force reports during that time. All four incidents involved force against Black men.
In the minds of many people, Adam is a dangerous generalization, a brown child with scary affiliations, who embodies the “super predator” stereotype politicians conjured up to paper over their own failed policies and justify the explosion of the prison industrial complex, the forever-expansion of policing, and the conversion of many schools into jail-like test mills.
The cop who killed Adam is ensconced in another manufactured fever dream: the police procedural. Most people have no significant contact with police in their lives. Their ideas about cops are mined from news stories, which often repeat the lies of police verbatim, and more often, cop shows, which spew propaganda into living rooms across the country, telling stories about sympathetic cops who are the only thing that stands between us and the worst that society has to offer. They are thoughtful, often empathetic, and forever in danger. When they break the rules, we are meant to understand that it’s for the greater good, and that we might have done the same. Viewers are left with the impression that these television shows, rather than footage of how police actually treat the public, are what policing looks like.
For those whose conception of the police is largely grounded in television or state fear mongering, a break from that unreality is needed. Even those of us who understand policing as the daily source of abuse, indignity and violence that it is, must further our analysis, because we are up against a culture steeped in propaganda and toxic sentimentality. We need to be armed with knowledge as we approach complex conversations, about not only defunding and dismantling the police, but also dismantling our collective illusions about them. It’s us against the cop shows, and people love cop shows, so we are going to have to show up brilliantly. I hope that today’s conversation will offer some assistance in that regard. I will be including other resources to assist with this deprogramming in the show notes and in future episodes. For those of you who are willing to challenge your ideas, or to help knock down the lies this society has fashioned to prop up its violence, I thank you for your time.
Today’s guest is Alex Vitale. Alex is a Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and a Visiting Professor at London Southbank University. He has spent the last 30 years writing about policing and is author of the books City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics and The End of Policing. Alex Vitale, welcome to the show.
Alex Vitale: Thank you, Kelly.
KH: First, I think it’s important to talk about what police do and don’t do. Because, as a prison and police abolitionist, when I talk about divesting from the police and building up other modes of community safety, I encounter a lot of “what about” questions that reflect people’s concerns about things like murder and rape — crimes that police don’t spend much of their time or resources on, and are not preventing, even now. But people sort of imagine the police as existing in opposition to those things, and offering some kind of recourse. So, can you say a bit about what police actually do and don’t do with their time?
AV: Police spend very little of their time dealing with serious crime and even less dealing with violent crime. The average police officer maybe makes one felony arrest a year. It’s estimated that violent crime calls make up less than 5 percent of the calls that police receive and represent even less of their time actually spent on the job.
So mostly police are managing a set of low level social problems in an effort, not so much to produce safety in some broad sense, but to produce a kind of system of order, and a notion of order that benefits some players more than others. They’re basically managing problems of mass homelessness and untreated mental health problems and failed schools and people involved in black market activity and they don’t solve any of those problems. They just kind of put a lid on them, shuffle people around, keep these problems from spilling over into nicer areas, and that sort of thing. And a lot of what they do isn’t even related to the law. It’s really about this more generic sense of producing order, and that order benefits people who are on the winning end of a whole set of political and economic arrangements.
KH: It’s always striking to me that people think of police as preventing acts of violence that they not only don’t prevent, but actually commit themselves en masse. Police kill people. They regularly batter and sexually assault people. They harass people. They toss people into the system at their discretion where we know people experience violence of all kinds.
Can you say a bit about the day-to-day violence of policing and what that looks like?
AV: Yeah. So, first of all, even when police say they’re doing something about violence, what this means typically is that they respond to a call about something that has already happened and they take a report. Maybe they conduct an investigation. In a very small number of cases, you know, they find a perpetrator. And then in an even smaller number of cases, they get a conviction. And none of this is really preventative.
At the same time, police produce violence. About 7 percent of all homicides in the United States are committed by police. [Editor’s note: According to a study in the American Journal of Public Health, “Police were responsible for about 8% of all homicides with adult male victims between 2012 and 2018.”] They enact a huge toll. Their involvement in the daily lives of African Americans in particular, have been shown to have concrete, measurable, negative public health implications for those communities. The stress and constant fear that comes from interacting with the police actually reduces life expectancies.
In addition, police enact violence in their personal lives. They enact violence in their professional lives. Some of it under the color of law in official circumstances, but also in corrupt ways. I think the most vulnerable population that experiences this are sex workers. There’s survey research from Chicago that showed, I believe it was about 15 percent of all sex workers surveyed, reported having been subjected to sexual assault from police officers, and a much higher number subjected to extortion of various kinds. So police have very high rates of domestic violence, have been implicated in serial sexual assaults, et cetera. So, this is not some magical force that exists solely to make women safe.
KH: In the circles I move in, when we talk about the origins of police in the U.S., people tend to zero in on slave patrols, due to the pivotal role that those forces played in the development of U.S. policing, and because the control and oppression of Black people remains so fundamental to U.S. policing. But liberals will often counter that by saying, “No, modern police departments were not modeled after slave patrols, they were modeled after the London Metropolitan Police.” Can you speak to that objection and why it doesn’t mean what people think it means?
AV: So the fact is that policing in the U.S. does not develop out of just one model. There are a number of interlocking forces at work here, none of which are good. So absolutely, in Southern cities, we see policing develop in relationship to slavery. In the big cities of the South like Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans, policing emerges to manage what is essentially a mobile slave population. In urban slavery, slaves work outside the home of their owners for wages that are then returned to the owner. And so policing emerges to micromanage the movement and public behavior of that slave population. And I argue that the Charleston City Watch and Guard formed in the late 1700s is actually the first modern police force.
But liberals don’t like to talk about that because they don’t want to acknowledge the centrality of slavery in the emergence of policing. So they point to London and they imagine London as this entirely positive example of civilian policing, but what’s left out of that narrative is where this idea came from. Sir Robert Peel, who creates the London Metropolitan Police — Robert, Bob, the bobbies — was in charge of the English occupation of Ireland, a colonial project. And he develops the Irish Peace Preservation Force as an early kind of hybrid form of policing to more effectively manage agricultural uprisings in the Irish countryside by placing police in the communities and giving them this kind of broader law enforcement mandate. He then takes that model to England where London is experiencing this massive influx of rural workers who have been displaced by the enclosure movement that’s privatizing public lands in desperate search of employment in the new industrial economy. And policing functions to mold that massive population into a stable and more or less docile industrial workforce through the criminalization of worker organizing, but also of worker pleasures, of drinking and fighting and sexual activities, et cetera. So it’s a very moralistic project as well as a political project. And of course these two things are linked.
And it’s that model that’s applied in the Northern United States. So in Chicago, for instance, Simon Balto and others have done great work in showing how policing emerges to micromanage immigrant populations who are coming mostly from Europe, and forming them into America’s stable, industrial working class.
And then finally, in the Western part of the country, policing really emerges as a colonial project about the displacement and even extermination of indigenous populations, and the displacement and the creation of a second-class citizenship status for Latinos of Spanish and Mexican descent as whites move West.
KH: In your book your wrote that “the origins of policing were tied to three basic social arrangements of inequality in the 18th century: slavery, colonialism and the control of a new industrial working class,” and I’d never heard it summarized quite that way before, and I really appreciated the simplicity of that breakdown. I plan to use it in movement education spaces in the future, so thank you for that. I think it’s important for us to have that kind of multi-dimensional analysis, particularly when we are looking at militarization.
On April 12, Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications responded to the protests unfolding in Minnesota by tweeting, “The City is monitoring events nationwide. While no actionable intelligence, out of caution, assets are strategically staged citywide for safety.” So in response to people protesting the killing of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, our city government in Chicago was using military speak to announce the “staging” of “assets,” despite having “no actionable intelligence” — meaning no one in our communities had done anything provocative whatsoever, but a military response was still being mounted, with potential protesters being framed as sort of a looming terrorist threat.
I found this striking, in contrast to the attack on the Capitol, where no meaningful preparations were made to defend Congress despite mass public announcements that officials at the highest levels of government would be attacked. But the sad thing is, this staging of “assets” is going to be received as normal, by a lot of people, and even necessary. Because at this point, people are growing accustomed to imagery of tank-like police vehicles and armies of cops decked out like storm troopers, bearing down on protesters. Many people have been conditioned to see potential “looters” as being to blame for these escalations, in the wake of various acts of property destruction that occurred last year. But the idea that these escalations are responses to recent events is really ahistorical. As Mariame Kaba and Tamara Knopper discuss in We Do This ‘Til We Free Us, a lot of people think of militarization as being a recent phenomenon — a sort of domestic byproduct of the War on Terror — when really, the militarization of the police is anything but new.
So I want to take a huge leap back in time, for a moment, and talk about August Vollmer, who is considered “the father of modern policing.” As you describe in your book, Vollmer really cultivated his vision of policing while participating in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, which became a sort of testing ground for police techniques and technologies. Can you talk about Vollmer’s professionalization of U.S. policing, and how that reform was born of U.S. colonial violence in the Philippines?
AV: Yes, and my colleague Julian Go there at the University of Chicago has updated our knowledge about the relationship of Vollmer’s work to these questions of imperialism and colonialism. So, you know, policing has always been subjected to reform. The history of policing is a history of police reform, and Vollmer was a police reformer. His ostensible mission was to try to root out the gross corruption of American policing and replace it with professionalization: higher salaries, higher standards, more training, crime labs, more technology.
But this mirrors the emergence of a more scientific form of colonialism around the world, of the management of colonized populations. And for the U.S. this is occurring primarily in the Philippines, that comes under American control at the end of the Spanish-American War. And the U.S. develops a whole set of professionalized technologies to prevent uprisings in the Philippines. They installed telegraph systems, two way radios. They create card file systems. And all of this is highly professionalized. And Vollmer takes this technology and applies it to domestic policing. So that, he says it’s progress because it’s an alternative to the corruption of the cop on the beat who’s taking bribes, who’s maybe working in conjunction with property thieves to get shared reward money, et cetera. But we’re merely replacing a corrupt system with a more efficiently brutal system that focuses on criminalizing the most vulnerable populations in our society, rather than addressing the real roots of that status.
So Vollmer is part of a long history of interplay between U.S. foreign policy interventions and domestic policing. And Stuart Schrader in his book, Badges Without Borders, does a great job of documenting that, especially during the Vietnam era where counterinsurgency and the policing of the Black ghetto become conflated in the minds of both foreign policy and domestic policing officials.
KH: I’m thinking about how we’ve seen that interplay enacted locally, in Chicago, specifically in the case of Jon Burge, a now-dead, former police commander who tortured and oversaw the torture of Black people in Chicago’s Area 2 headquarters, from 1972 to 1991, employing tactics he learned during the Vietnam war. Burge was actually a decorated war veteran.
AV: Well, there’s an interplay, right, between prison management, policing, and militarism and colonialism, so that the using of telephones to electrocute people is happening in interrogation rooms in South Vietnam, and in hidden prison storage rooms in Arkansas, and in secret police lockups in Chicago. And there is movement of individuals between all of these institutions, as we saw with the Abu Ghraib outrages, right, where it was American prison guards who enact systems of torture and humiliation in American military prisons.
KH: In your book you wrote, “Liberals think of the police as the legitimate mechanism for using force in the interests of the whole society,” and I find that sentence so infuriatingly accurate. Nearly everyone but police in the United States is subject to the admonition that “violence is never the answer,” and when we are victimized by police, we are told that resistance is never the answer. Which is why we see so much talk of “compliance” when someone is killed by the police. People say, “if he had complied, he would be alive,” or in Sandra Bland’s case, even zero in on her demeanor, saying if she had been more respectful, she would not have been arrested. People who are not police, who don’t have that kind of dominion over other people’s liberty and survival, are never viewed as having the right to act or speak out of turn, or in their own defense, or to fail to comply out of indignance or fear. When police hurt someone, we’re often asked to consider what the officer must have been feeling, and yet that expectation of empathy is never extended to people who fail to cooperate with police. We hear that victims of police violence should have complied, even though people are killed by police in spite of complying, and even while begging, or are killed by the system in ways that don’t give most people any pause. Because if someone is arrested and slapped with a charge, that may or may not be real, and they can’t make bail, they could wind up losing their job and their health insurance while they’re in jail, or losing custody of their child, or even dying in jail, or in prison. They could contract an illness, like COVID-19, and have no functional access to healthcare, which is the norm in jails in prisons. Or their mental health could deteriorate, because, as everyone should know, jails and prisons are major sites of suicide, because they are physically and psychologically torturous environments. That kind of loss, and suffering, and death, can be dealt out whimsically by police, and often is, purely for the sake of harassment or spite. And that’s one of the frustrating things about these moments, where we fixate on the specifics of a singular act of police violence, in a singular case, and try to decide if the victim was innocent enough for a killer cop to be guilty of something — we shine a spotlight instead of illuminating the larger truth that there are so many ways the system robs people of life, and police are out there daily, enacting that theft. That is the work that they actually do, in my opinion. But when people react to police out of fear, or resist them in any way, they are blamed. Even though police are allowed to act with impunity, and when one is even potentially held responsible for someone’s death, it’s more or less international news. So why do people in the U.S. grant police such absolute legitimacy, and why are the people they enact violence upon viewed as having no legitimacy when they break the rules in acts of refusal or protest?
AV: I mean, all of this is rooted in America’s racist authoritarianism. And if we think about this in the context of colonization, we can see the profound trap that this represents for people. Right? In a colonial context, the colonizing power comes in, takes control of resources, and then creates a legal system that appears on paper to be either race neutral or to adhere to certain liberal principles of rule of law and democracy. But that system is designed to facilitate the pillaging of that society and the subjugation of its population. And police exist to enforce that so-called legal order. And then when people resist the obvious injustice of that, that is used as both proof of their lack of civility and justification for enacting violence on their bodies and their communities.
Well, this is analogous to the situation of the policing of many communities in the United States. People are told that they must submit to the authority of policing because it somehow magically upholds some legal order that benefits everyone. And this just isn’t the case. There’s a famous 19th century saying, “The law in its [majestic equality] forbids both the rich and the poor from sleeping under bridges, stealing bread, and begging in the streets.” But of course the rich don’t need to do these things, only the poor do. And so the neutral enforcement of those laws, no matter how professionalized, falls entirely on the already most vulnerable, disenfranchised, and exploited populations in our society. And then when they resist that obvious injustice, they are further criminalized, brutalized, and in some cases killed.
And we can see this, I think even more clearly with the War on Drugs. A legal system that was designed to reproduce racial inequality from the beginning is then empowered with this massive system of policing that is used to invade the lives of the already most vulnerable and exploited communities. And then when people try to evade it or resist it, they are brutalized, incarcerated, demeaned, humiliated, et cetera. And this is the kind of trap that Frantz Fanon talks about in relationship to colonialism, right? It is an impossible trap to escape in its own terms. And he argues, you know, only radical, transformative, and if necessary, violent resistance to that system will ever give people a way out of this trap.
KH: In The End of Policing, you talk a lot about police and prosecution being used as a stand-in for essential services that would actually address social problems. One example is the criminalization of homelessness, and I have to say, reading your book, even I was surprised by how much more affordable it would be to just house everyone, than it is to continuously ramp up the criminalization of people who don’t have stable housing, and just deal with the social and financial fallout of people being unhoused. Having experienced homelessness myself, I know that even the help that is extended to unhoused people is dealt out very punitively, as though you have failed at being part of a society and thus have to have your actions controlled and policed and picked over by people who know better. Given that we have an unprecedented housing crisis looming, with the eviction moratorium set to expire this summer, what do you think people urgently need to understand about the criminalization of homelessness?
AV: The populations that are most intensively criminalized, are criminalized at massive public expense. Not just the cost of policing, but the cost of emergency rooms, and homeless shelters, and jail beds, and courtroom time turns out to be massively expensive. In Chicago, a coalition of hospitals recently realized that basically they were spending massive amounts of money managing a fairly small group of people who were essentially living in their emergency rooms. And they realized it would be cheaper to just permanently house those people and provide them with support services than to allow them to continue to utilize emergency room facilities. And this is true in a lot of cases. The people who most frequently cycle through these institutions could be more efficiently, cheaply, and humanely accommodated by just housing them with support services.
The problem here, though, is that elected officials of both parties are so committed to a kind of neoliberal austerity rooted in a discourse around personal responsibility and individual moral failure that they’re completely resistant to the idea that the appropriate role of the government is to directly intervene in housing markets. They’ve capitulated to this idea that the market knows best. And all we can do is subsidize the most rich in hopes that this will trickle down to the rest of us, even though they don’t really believe in free markets. They subsidize the rich. They do their downtown deals, and their land use variances, and their zoning exemptions, you know, for their friends and their buddies cause they think that’ll somehow benefit the overall health of the city. And so, it’s not that they could not possibly afford to intervene and start housing people; it’s that ideologically they’re committed to not doing that because that would upset all their big real estate contributors, the downtown developers, and all the rest. And so it’s not enough to just show that something is cost-effective. We have to overcome this free-market ideology, and it is primarily an ideology more than a real practice.
KH: I want to talk a bit about drug courts and diversion programs, because a lot of people who will acknowledge that the war on drugs has been a bad thing actually approve of drug courts and diversion, but you did an excellent job in your book of explaining why drug courts are not the answer. Can you say a bit about that?
AV: So, specialized courts have emerged over the last 30 years or so under this idea that, you know, the courts are filled with people whose problems are rooted in their poverty and social dislocation. And rather than actually addressing the root causes of their vulnerability, we are trying to reform the court system by hiring a few social workers and creating a few dead end social programs to take the edge off of the bad optics. And drug courts, where we have some pretty good research — the proponents of these things have said things like, “Well, the people who graduate from drug court have better outcomes than the people who go directly to jail or prison.” The problem is that’s the wrong comparison. What we should be comparing is the outcomes for people who start the process of a drug court versus people who start the process in a regular court. And when we do that, it turns out the outcomes for people who start in drug courts overall are worse. They spend more time in custody and they have higher rates of recidivism. So these courts add extra expenses to the system under the veil of reform and they don’t produce better overall outcomes. We need to just end the war on drugs and turn this problem over to public health authorities and completely remove the criminal legal system from any role in this.
KH: In your book you talk about police in schools, and how the practice of policing schools has evolved since the ’90s, in response to fear mongering about super predator children. You also talk about policing of schools, how it connects with the test-driven, neoliberal education model, which has made many schools more like prisons. Can you say a bit about the escalation of policing in schools and how it connects with these neoliberal education policies?
AV: So in the 1980s and ’90s, we’re ramping up austerity across the country at all levels of government, and so public spending for education is on the chopping block. And a group of conservatives who are motivated by the desire to cut taxes, privatize, right, the whole neoliberal agenda, they say, “Ah, we have a solution.” The chief proponent of this is actually George W. Bush, while he’s governor of Texas. He says — look, we don’t have to put more money into schools. The problem is they’re wasting the money they have. We need schools to focus on the essentials: reading, writing, arithmetic, the three R’s. And we need to create accountability, personal responsibility, for meeting these educational objectives. So we need to get rid of the clubs and the bands and the art classes and the extracurriculars and the sports teams. And we need to rigorously test everyone and tie things like teacher salary and school funding to performance on the test. And this will get everyone to focus themselves on developing these essential skills. — And over a period of years, the test scores appear to go up. And everyone says, “Aha, the Texas miracle, they proved that austerity works. The testing works and that we don’t need to properly fund education. We just need to do all this testing.” What is not discussed is how that is actually experienced by students, and who is tested and who isn’t.
So what happens is is that, in addition to all the cuts and the testing, they also implement a whole set of zero tolerance disciplinary initiatives and intensive school policing. And what happens is that they drive huge numbers of quote “low-performing” unquote students out of the formal educational system and into so-called “alternative” schools, which look like prisons and are not included in the testing regime. So they just juked the numbers by taking students who were dragging down test scores, criminalizing them, excluding them from a real education, and then claiming that the system works. Well, it works in the sense that if you x out 10, 20, 25 percent of students, those with special needs, those who are struggling with problems in the rest of their life, and you just cancel them out basically for life. Because what we know is that those processes of school exclusion lead to long-term involvement with the criminal justice system, very poor economic outcomes, premature death, et cetera.
So, this is the fake model of austerity reform. And then the Clinton administration comes along and ramps that up even further, playing on the super predator myth and responding to the Columbine High School massacre; Clinton is part of this process as well, that then when Bush becomes president becomes No Child Left Behind and becomes national policy.
KH: I want to talk a bit about gang suppression units, because “gangs” are the favorite scapegoat of both Democrat and Republican politicians. Everything that’s wrong with our communities is always the fault of gangs, rather than the material conditions that actually make crime more likely to occur. But in reality, the policing of gangs has been a huge source of corruption, state violence and distrust between communities and the people who govern them. Can you speak to some of that history?
AV: So, the primary work of The Policing and Social Justice Project here in New York is pushing back against gang suppression policing. So we’re part of the GANGS Coalition here that’s made up of family members, community groups, legal advocates, academics, who are pointing out the huge mistake that New York City is making.
So for many years, New York resisted framing its youth violence problems as being gang problems to be suppressed by policing. They hired youth workers, they established youth boards, they created diversion programs, and they did not try to frame this as a gang problem even though some young people consider themselves to be in gangs and some of the violence has an organized character to it. And this was a very good decision going back to the 1950s. And what it meant was that, the implication of this was that New York never developed the kind of highly entrenched multi-generational gangs that places like Chicago and Los Angeles did, where gang suppression was always what was offered and used.
But over the last 10 years or so, we’ve seen New York falling into this gang suppression trap. With the elimination of widespread stop and frisk practices, the NYPD said, — Well, we have a different tool for criminalizing young men of color, we’re going to call them gang bangers. We’re going to put them in gang databases. We’re going to create wide ranging gang conspiracy cases. And we’re going to use this to surveil, harass and criminalize them. And the result is an intensification of gang identification. This is classic labeling theory. When everyone tells you the most important thing about you is that you’re a gang member, then that gang identity takes on more salience in their lives. And what it means to be a gang member is not that you wear similar colors, and you like to party together, and maybe you do some shoplifting sometime, and you walk to school. No, now being a gang member means you’re at war with the police. And so it encourages more defiance, more violence, more resistance that engenders more police repression.
And really, what this is about, it’s about taking the very real needs of young people that sometimes result in violence and saying, “It’s about moral failure to be resolved through intensive policing,” instead of saying, “Oh, look, we’ve got a cycle of trauma. We’ve got deep alienation from the formal labor market. We’ve got educational failure. We’ve got families that are in deep crisis.” See, by calling it gang behavior, we erase any responsibility for producing the conditions. And we just say, “Oh, these are super predators who are morally deficient. And the only thing we can do is just lock them up for as long as possible.”
KH: Gang suppression units also have a pretty scandalous history. In 2007, the Chicago Police Department disbanded its Special Operations Section, after seven members were charged with felonies including armed violence, home invasion, kidnapping, and a murder for hire scheme against a fellow officer. The Los Angeles Police Department has also gone through some dramatic cycles of rebranding and disbanding its anti-gang units, amid scandals and widespread corruption. Could you say a bit about some of that history?
AV: Sure. So the process of gang labeling and gang suppression is dehumanizing. And you have statements coming from, like, LA Sheriffs executives saying, — How are we going to address this gang violence? The way we would, you know, a pest control problem. You know, we’re just going to wipe these people out.— You have the LAPD targeting neighborhoods, individuals, families, housing complexes, as inherently criminal, evil, and then unleashing violence, harassment, destruction upon these folks, engaging in a kind of process of deterrence rooted in this idea that if we just threaten, punish, and intimidate people enough that this will get them to change their behavior. And this does not work. It makes the problem worse. Even enlightened police leaders know this, but they are so — you know, the politicians have so empowered them to be in charge of every social problem that the best they can come up with are some superficial reforms in between bouts of extreme corruption and violence.
KH: And we’ve also seen that dehumanization manifest itself in our schools. I believe I heard you talk in an interview about having filmed a police officer threatening to taze a group of students for not walking home fast enough from school.
AV: Yes, a threat that, you know, asked them if they wanted to “ride the lightning.” I was just coming out of my office when I see these police officers jump out of their police car with their batons already out, approaching some high school kids on the sidewalk, and I followed them and videotaped all of this. And you know, the officers still have not suffered any consequences for this behavior. And the fact that they had this expression, “ride the lightning,” said to me, this is a routine practice, that the cops know what that means, and they know that the students know what it means because they’re subjected to these threats on a regular basis.
School policing has been a total, abject failure. No matter how we look at it, it is not making schools safer. It’s de-stabilizing the educational experience for young people. It’s preying on the already most challenged, most vulnerable students. And we just need to put a complete stop to it. You know, a huge shout out to the Black Organizing Project in Oakland, which has really provided a model for the kind of organizing that’s needed to try to get police out of the lives of our children.
KH: Absolutely. And shout out to #CopsOutCPS, which has been doing great work here in Chicago as well. We have seen a lot of hope in the last year in that kind of organizing, and in the Defund movement. Despite being regularly written off by detractors across the political spectrum, the campaign has been winning very impressive victories. Building off of years of abolitionist organizing, and other community efforts that were rarely given a national spotlight, activists seized the momentum of last year’s protests and have won what are, in my view, an unprecedented set of victories. As documented by Andrea Ritchie and Interrupting Criminalization, Defund organizers have “extracted over $840 million from police departments, and secured investments of at least $160 million in communities. They removed cops from schools in over 25 cities, saving an additional $34 million for investment in meeting student and community needs.” We have also seen waves of new organizers trained up through Defund efforts, including in Minneapolis, where Reclaim the Block’s “train the trainers” efforts helped fuel a successful campaign to reduce the police budget. Here in Chicago, we’ve been something of a hub of abolitionist organizing for quite a while, so I am quite accustomed to the unthoughtful and un-curious dismissals people toss out, when we talk about taking resources away from the police, and rerouting funds to our communities. But even as Defund garners victories, it is railed against as unfocused, impractical and unwinnable, and while I think some of that comes from people failing to inform themselves, what they are falling victim to in their ignorance, is a neoliberal narrative. Because, as you’ve said, both Democratic and Republican mayors rely on the police to maintain inequality, because the maintenance of the inequality that creates crime is fundamentally essential to them. Defund is a major threat to neoliberalism, because if people finally understood that there is no connection between the number of cops and their safety or quality of life, they might undermine the primary function of these big city mayors, which is ensuring ever-increasing profits for large companies at the expense of the people. Communities might demand things that would actually improve their lives, so the powerful really have every incentive to strike this movement down.
AV: What’s, I think, significant about this is the momentum, the clarity about this is moving out around the country. And so folks who used to be primarily focused on getting some more police training, or body cameras, or a civilian complaint review board are now moving off of that and are embracing the idea that we need to get the police out of our lives in as many ways as we possibly can and create real community-based strategies for public safety that aren’t rooted in violence and coercion. And I’m extremely optimistic about, at least the immediate future in relationship to the local organizing that’s going on.
KH: A lot of people are in a different mindset about authority than they were last summer, under the Trump administration, and I am very concerned about the safety of people who are going to be facing the violence of police this summer at protests, and about what kind of support they will receive from liberals, many of whom are more hungry for the status quo than they are for disruption . What do you think people need to understand about the way protests are being policed right now, and how we need to respond to that policing as the summer unfolds?
AV: Well, I think it’s clear that anyone who has watched the policing of the protests, whether it was last summer or over the last couple of weeks in Minnesota, it is pretty clear that policing has not been reformed, that we continue to see this intense use of violence to manage what are essentially political problems that politicians don’t want to address, that they’re using chemical agents against civilian populations that have been made illegal on the battlefield. I mean, this is outrageous behavior designed to suppress and discredit these movements. And it is serving the interests of a political class who does not want to diminish their reliance on policing. And that is why they have allowed police to make their own decisions about how to respond to demonstrations against abusive policing. I mean, this is so perverse. So we need to abolish this kind of political policing as well and demand that our politicians create real mechanisms for resolving political problems instead of trying to suppress it by evermore abusive and militarized policing.
KH: Your book, The End of Policing, was published in 2017, and I know you have been very engaged with everything that’s been happeninig since. The End of Policing isn’t an abolitionist book, but it’s definitely considered to be abolitionist adjacent. If it were published today, do you think the book would take a more abolitionist stance?
AV: So, there will be a new edition of the book out later this year. And I have tried to tighten up some of the arguments where I’ve gotten feedback about, you know, things that could drift into reformism or whatever. I tried consciously to produce a book that would be consistent with the core thinking and practice of abolitionists, while being accessible to a broad audience who was not already familiar with the concept. And in that regard, I think it’s been very successful in helping to give people who aren’t already part of the movement a real feel for some of the key ideas, and a sense of concretely what we could do instead of policing. And while I don’t deeply theorize about abolition, though, there is some more of that in the new edition, I feel like I’m not in any sense, or at least I’ve attempted not to do anything to undermine that deeper abolitionist envisioning.
KH: Well, I am looking forward to that new edition, and to the discussions it will bring. Thanks so much for joining me today, Alex. This has been a great conversation.
AV: You’re most welcome Kelly.
KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good, and to remember, that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale
City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics by Alex S. Vitale
We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? Edited by Joe Macaré, Maya Schenwar, and Alana Yu-lan Price (Foreword by Alicia Garza)
What to do Instead of calling the police by Anna North
New Toolkit Tallies Up Victories and Summarizes Strategies to Defund the Police by Andrea J. Ritchie
#DefundPolice Toolkit: Concrete Steps Toward Divestment from Policing & Investment in Community Safety (toolkit)
Defund Police (This short explainer video collaboration from Project Nia and Blue Seat Studios.)
Police Abolition 101: Messages When Facing Doubts (zine)
One Million Experiments offers “snapshots of community-based safety strategies that expand our ideas about what keeps us safe.”
The Demand Is Still #DefundPolice (a toolkit)
What’s Next: Safer and More Justice Communities Without Policing (guide)
GANGS Coalition (organization) is made up of organizers, advocates, & directly impacted community seeking to abolish criminalization tools predicated on gang or crew labels.